The Homeless Population at 289 Derby


photo: Claudia Paraschiv

Stumps by Michael Jaros

A series of stumps were brought to 289 Derby by city workers to be used as flexible seating for the upcoming Community Design Events, and we wanted to paint them. But who would paint them? On one of our first days at the site, a group of teens from the On Point Plummer Youth Promise came to help. Paint was everywhere, as the stumps took on a life of their own and a series of strange, otherworldly colors emerged. Some stumps were spackled with multiple colors of paint, some were hand-printed, and some were monochromatic. We quickly realized that we had not logistically thought through a lot of things – we did not have water, for instance, to wash off the brushes and rollers and only a limited amount of supplies. Trips to the gas station and ace hardware solved these problems, somewhat.

When the kids left we still had more stumps to paint. A day or so later, two friends brought their two children to help paint the stumps and the process began again: select a nice color from our many paint-cans, make sure there was actually paint in it, find a brush that was still usable, fill up the water bucket, and so on. The kids painted with a frenzy and excitement that oscillated with mild disinterest.

We’d had some encounters with homeless folks who occupied the side of the gas station next to the 289 lot. A man named John had come forward first and talked to us about what we were doing. He then returned with his friend and wrote on one of the doors we had set up for community interactions, which read “WRITE YOUR QUESTION HERE.” The question he wrote was “Why are the homeless treated so poorly?” The second question was: “Why does the shelter not help anyone?” It was a stark reminder of their presence and of their humanity, something we often willfully ignore or place just at the uncomfortable margins of our sight. They were curious about what we were working on, but also wanted to be involved in what was happening. Understandably, they approached our actions with a deep skepticism.

We’d rolled a series of logs near the water to be used for a drum circle during the first event. I’d noticed a group of homeless had begun sitting there and, as I was once more painting nearby, John came and talked to me. I learned a little more about him. He had three sons. He had worked in a variety of fields from construction to IT. He had not seen his sons in years. They did not know where he was. I didn’t ask what made him live on the streets and he didn’t tell me. He asked if it was ok if his friends sat on the stumps in the circle. I said it was fine. I told him I would be moving over to the circle to paint those stumps soon.

I confess I was somewhat afraid to do so. The stigma around homelessness has also affected me, but this conversation with Barry had made me feel less trepidation. I began painting a stump in the circle and very quickly they began chatting with me; some of them asked if they could help to paint. A woman was clearly drunk, but wanted to help. She kept calling me David, instead of Michael, and told me she thought she was stuck on that name because she’d had a son who had died who had had that name. Another woman joined and painted an entire stump and ended it by placing a heart on the top of it. I didn’t catch her name, but she had “been lucky” and gotten her family and her house back after a spate with addiction. She had merely come out there, it seems, to meet with her friends from her harder times. Another man told jokes and riddles, and kept asking me what I thought of them, why I wanted to hang out there with them. A man named Green, dressed in a green hat, green shirt, and green socks jacket painted an entire stump green.

Eventually I had to be on my way and took the paint back to its place and cleaned up. It was a brief, accidental moment, but I think it was important. Empathy is in short supply these days and it certainly tempered any fear or frustration that I may have had at later events as screams might have rung out, chairs might have been kicked over, or fights broken out on the edge of 289. They are there, they are people with hopes and dreams, and they must be a part of the process.

(note: names have been changed)